Innocence and Experience

This was a time of change and upheaval in my life. From a warm, unpretentious family, and a village school, I was sent to a smart boarding school for ‘gels’. It was a case of sink or swim at the age of 13. What I felt set me apart was my Scottish accent, which made me feel like a crow among larks. I decided to keep my head down, to listen and learn, and try to keep up with the bells and time tables that regulated all our lives.

I got on well enough with the other girls. Everyone had to have one special friend or partner because most things were done in pairs. You walked together to the games field, or for walks in the town if the weather was too wet for the grass. You were never alone. Of course, this was the fifties, when teenagers were treated as children, and schoolgirls were kept ignorant of sexual matters. Pandora’s box had not yet revealed The Pill, and we were all so innocent.

My partner was called Anne Martin. She was very pretty and quiet; a tiny bit dull in fact, but I didn’t care. She was my best friend. That first year she invited me to her home for a weekend during the Christmas holidays. It was to be my first long train journey alone. Anne and her mother met me at the station. Anne was happy to see me, though her mother was less so. She frowned a lot, though she might have been beautiful if she would only smile. I couldn’t help comparing her with my own cuddly mother, who I knew would bake a cake for Anne with her name in icing when she came to stay with us.

Anyway, we drove through their home town of Preston, where everything, including their large house, was built of red brick, very different from Edinburgh’s grey stone. Mrs Martin didn’t talk much, even to Anne. But it didn’t matter; everything was new and exciting. We were going to to a pantomime too!

Anne’s older brother Gerald opened the door to us. He was good-looking, but he didn’t speak much either, and soon shut himself in his room. There was no sign of their father. Their home was a surprise. I thought it very fine, with large and lofty rooms, but the furniture was dark and heavy, as if it belonged to a different family. The bathroom was like nothing I had ever seen before. The bath itself was like a wooden battleship, with brass taps and spouts all over the high raised front, but there were patches where the bath enamel had broken off. It was great fun though, and I had a wonderful bath the first night there.

The next day I met Anne’s father for the first time. Her mother said he was a very busy doctor at the hospital, and could only spare time for coffee. We were all, including Gerald, in the ‘snug’, waiting for him. He arrived, rubbing his hands together, and booming: “Where is this young Scottish friend of Anne’s?” He clasped my shoulders and smiled down at me with his twinkly blue eyes, radiating good humour. He played with my long blonde plaits, told me I was a pretty girl, and bade me sit on his knee – so I did. To my amazement, I felt his hand groping my bottom, and jumped off. Soon after that Dr Martin left for his work at the hospital.

Later that afternoon we were getting ready for the pantomime. I was still wearing the new dress I had been wearing the previous day. Clothes coupons were still needed after the war, so a new dress was something very special. This one was a soft greeny-blue, with a neat collar and long sleeves. Suddenly Mrs Martin was calling me.

“Elspeth! You neck is dirty. It’s black! We can’t go to the theatre with you looking like that!”

“What?” I said “It can’t be dirty. I had a bath last night.”

“Don’t argue!” she said. She went into the kitchen and returned holding a dripping flannel. She pulled open the top button on my collar and proceeded to scrub angrily at my neck with the cloth, soaking the top of my dress as she did so. I was completely mystified, but not as angry as I might have been. I only knew that my neck was not dirty. That accusation upset me more than the assault on my dress and my dignity. I told nobody about the episode, and it faded at last from my memory.

But now, all these years later, it has re-emerged, and with it some understanding of what happened. Did I play the sweet little innocent leading him on, as I’m sure Mrs Martin believed? No, I did not. Her husband was handsome, successful and – I now realise – an habitual drinker and ladies’ man. That scene, or ones like it, where the good doctor could not keep his hands off a young female, had been played out many times before. This time she thought she could take some kind of revenge. I wonder if it made her feel better.

To my sorrow, my friend Anne was removed from the school after only one more term. It was rumoured there was family trouble at home. A letter I send to the house was returned by the Post Office marked: No Longer At This Address.

By Gwyn Mary Bell

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